How to Communicate with Relatives You’re Sheltering in Place With

Note: All identifying information, such as gender, have been changed.

This week I received a question on Ask Joie from someone living in quarantine with an adult sibling who gets very anxious about the state of affairs and becomes negative and overwhelmed. Yet, when they attempted to talk to the sibling about it, the sibling replied that they’re “not very anxious at all” and “accepting things as they are.”

The question: What can I do? It’s really exhausting being around a person in a state of panic. 

First, thank you for your question. Bravo for trying to talk to your sibling, and you did the right thing by bringing up the issue during a quiet time of connection. When they went into denial you did what most people do, you stopped, even suppressing your reaction by trying to keep a straight face. Understandable. Yet, when you do that it says their feelings are more important, more valid than your own. It’s important going forward to recognize that staying quiet does not benefit either of you. We all need the reflection of others. We can’t grow and thrive in a vacuum. We need feedback! The task is to give feedback in a way that gets heard. 

My question to you is, what is your intention? To relieve your anxiety?  To get them to calm down? If you want to help your sibling for their sake as well as your own, it helps to keep that in mind. First, it becomes about more than a momentary upset. Second, it can keep you focused when you are met with resistance. 

I’m going to lay out how to have a conversation with your sibling and keep in mind that you can say it in a way that is most natural for you. Here’s how to move forward.

There are four principles to keep in mind for effective communication:

1. Making the other person feel safe is key to being heard.

2. Taking as much time as it takes to have your communication be understood.

3. It’s about you, not them.

3. Having the courage to speak emotional truth, with compassion, is a gift. 

Making them feel safe: First, ground yourself before you approach them. (I recently posted a short guided meditation for calming nerves.) Find a time when you can talk with them again. You might say to your sibling, “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about, is there a good time we can talk privately?” They may ask what it’s about and you can assure them it’s nothing bad. Whether they say now is good or name a later time, find a place where you have privacy.  During the conversation focus on your experience. This is not about giving advice.

Start by saying something reassuring, like how much you love them, that you’re glad you can provide a space for them to quarantine; anything that is honest and positive. Let them know you have some feelings you’d like to share. Then ask one or both of the following questions: • “Is it OK to be honest with you?”• “Do you believe I have your best interest at heart?” When having a difficult conversation with someone, asking permission to tell the truth in some form shows respect for them and helps to lessen people’s defensiveness.

Take your time: Really pay attention to what you feel as well as hear. For example, if they answer “Yes,” but there’s hesitancy, stop. “I noticed you hesitated when you said yes. . . ”  Using a gentle and reassuring tone while proceeding slowly is key. A common reason people have problems in relationships, they don’t take time to fully understand or be understood.

It’s about you, not them: You might say something like, “Last week when I brought up how exhausted you must be from anxiety you said you didn’t feel that anxious. I didn’t say anything, but I had a reaction to that. The truth is, I am feeling quite exhausted myself. My experience is that you are anxious a lot and I am working very hard to try to make you feel better. When you said you weren’t anxious, I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. The truth is, I’m very concerned about your health and well-being as well as my own.”

“I’ve noticed that when you _____ (name the facts of what you observe, this is not about your opinion, it’s about what they actually do or say that drains you), I feel ____ (upset/anxious/annoyed, whatever the truth is.)” “Any time I bring up something positive as a way to help you, you seem to get more upset. I’m at a loss.”   

Have the courage to tell the truth: If they go into denial again, address it. “I hear what you’re saying, but it is not my experience of you. When you respond that way, I feel really frustrated. I don’t feel like you are really considering what I’m saying. This quarantine is hard. It’s natural to feel anxious. I wonder if you feel it so much that it just seems normal for you. But from my experience, it’s draining.”  This is an example, you will find your own words.  

Once you have gotten to this point, you’ll either have more agreement or you won’t. It doesn’t have to be resolved in one conversation. It may be that you will have to say, “Just think about what I’ve said. We can talk again tomorrow.” You may want to reassure them that you love them and it’s all going to be OK. If they seem at all open, you can ask them what might help them focus their thoughts and energy is a better direction. Whatever happens, be prepared for some awkwardness, which is a normal part of behavioral change. 

We tend to hold back the truth because we are afraid of hurting someone. However, the only way you actually hurt another person is when you do it intentionally or by trying to manipulate them. Being emotionally honest with someone never actually hurts them, no matter how defensive they may become. Defensiveness is an ego reaction to fear or other vulnerable feelings. One possibility is that your sibling is afraid of their own fear, so denying it is an attempt to stay safe. 

In the end, emotional honesty is the most liberating thing you can experience. Emotions are energy in motion. If you keep things inside, energy builds up with nowhere to go, it can cause all kinds of health problems, not to mention relationship issues. It can feel very awkward speaking the truth, but it frees up energy and promotes healthy intimacy.

Do you have an emotionally challenging situation you are struggling with and would like some advice?

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